Ricky Shetty remembers well the first time he took his baby to a business meeting. Rianne had not yet turned one, and her dad—a Vancouver-based event planner—had promised he’d attend a luncheon training session. So he coaxed her into a clean dress and told himself that everything would be fine. But he drove to the event with a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. “I was worried that she might disrupt things,” recalls Shetty, 38, who juggles work with daytime child-care duty, while his wife, Anne, an IT specialist, commutes to an office job. “I thought people might wonder why I brought her. I thought they might be angry.”
Rianne, however, rose to the challenge. Perched in a high chair in the meeting room, she gummed happily on her puréed vegetables while speakers took their turns. When she grew restless, Shetty whisked her into the hall and, by the end of the two-hour gathering, she was the star of the show, stirring laughter with her smiles, winning plaudits for her behaviour. “The new dads could clearly relate,” recalls Shetty, who went on to launch Daddyblogger, a website dedicated to parenting from the father’s perspective. “And the moms there really got it. I think they were inspired that I could come with my daughter and not completely fall apart.”
If you had to devise the acid test of a man’s determination to work and parent at the same time, this would be it. But Shetty is an anomaly—a self-styled emissary between the domestic and professional spheres. He’s taken Rianne, now three, and his two-year-old son, Ryan, to numerous meetings. Fatherhood still confers an aura of respectability that befits a businessman, he says, and clients “tend to remember a man in a suit who is pushing a stroller.”
The payoff, he says, comes when he witnesses moments many fathers miss: first steps, a weekday afternoon at the park. He’s taken video of Cheerios spills and somersaults, and sent them to his wife to make her smile. It’s all sufficiently gratifying that he’s wondered lately why he doesn’t see more men like himself on his afternoon sorties to the playground. But the novelty of Shetty’s personal circus act demonstrates the difficulty men face when they try to take an equal role in parenting. Most don’t work from home. Few share Shetty’s sense of mission, and fewer still could bring a child into their workplaces. If reconciling the competing demands of parenting and career requires such superhuman effort, such an alignment of stars, is it any wonder so many fathers stay at work?
Good question. It’s been two decades since the phenomenon of the child-rearing dad became detectable to Canadian census-takers; longer still since trailblazing men first went to court for equal parental-leave benefits. Those were supposed to be way stations on a steady march toward an even split of child-care responsibilities throughout the Western world. But the army of at-home dads who would make that moment possible is nowhere to be seen. “We have, to this day, ancient structures that are based on a 1950s mentality about the roles of men and women,” says Josh Levs, a CNN reporter who fought his employer, Time Warner, for parental-leave benefits, and is the author of a new book, All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses—And How We Can Fix It Together. At last count in Canada, only one in 10 eligible fathers was claiming parental-leave benefits through Employment Insurance (EI), a ceiling that has held since an initial rush of men taking paternity leave in the mid-2000s. In 2012, the number actually declined from 11 per cent to 9.4; those who took leave spent 13 weeks on average away from work, compared to 31.5 weeks for mothers (these numbers don’t include Quebec; more on that later).
This despite reports from both men and women that fathers are more involved than ever in their kids’ upbringing. Men assume between 40 and 60 per cent of child-care duties in nearly a quarter of Canadian families, according to a 2012 national study on work-life balance, while Statistics Canada reports fathers are averaging 19 more minutes a day with their families than they did in the mid-1980s. Their involvement is reflected in an explosion of dad blogs, online magazines, web users like Dadditt and a high-profile series of conferences dubbed Dad 2.0. But it’s made possible by what experts refer to as “role overload.” Fully 68 per cent of men in the 2012 work-life survey reported working more than 45 hours per week (up from 39 per cent in 1991), while nearly four in 10 said they fulfill between seven and nine roles, such as parent, employee, workplace supervisor, community volunteer, handyman and caregiver for an elderly relative.
The sheer exhaustion this implies is taking its toll. Since 1977, the U.S.-based Families and Work Institute has recorded a near twofold increase in the share of fathers reporting conflicts between work and home life; in 2008, it stood at 60 per cent. “There’s a lot more social pressure and family pressure on men,” agrees Chris Higgins, professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ont., and co-author of a similar series of surveys in Canada. “We’re starting to see the effects.” But it’s also driving a new strain of activism among North American fathers, who believe things will get worse for men unless they stand up against outmoded social and economic assumptions. Levs’s book is a battle cry for overburdened dads, the most extreme of whom were highlighted in a recent study of a global consulting firm, which revealed men faking the 80-hour workweeks their bosses expected, while covering for each other to sneak in family time. To critics like Levs, work and family should be no more a binary choice for men than it is for women. Dads who want fulfilling careers and starring roles in their children’s lives can have both, he says; they just have to fight for their rights.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been said—recently and powerfully—about women. Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, launched a worldwide movement with Lean In, a manifesto that affirmed women’s right to combine work and family, while urging them to ignore their insecurities, work harder, and do their part to dispel stubborn workplace gender biases.
Levs is borrowing the conceit, arguing that ingrained gender bias is also keeping men from embracing their roles as caregivers and nurturers. And he’s doing so with Sandberg’s approval, because, to her, the ideas are opposite sides of the same coin. “As women must be empowered at work,” she writes in Lean In, “men must be empowered in the home.” Women’s mass movement into the workplace “fell apart,” Levs quotes her saying, because the assumption that men would be primary breadwinners while women raised children never changed. “Women went into the workforce in massive numbers,” Sandberg tells him, “but they couldn’t stay with the same dedication.”
Sandberg would know. She has long credited her husband, Dave Goldberg—a Silicon Valley exec who died unexpectedly in May at age 47C—for making her success possible by shouldering his share of domestic duties. He made sure, for instance, to be home by 6 p.m. so he could help make dinner and get their two children to bed, often scheduling work dinners after 8 p.m. When choosing a husband, Sandberg famously advised women to find “someone who values fairness and expects, or, even better, wants to do his share in the home.”
As for Levs, CNN.com’s resident “dad columnist” formed his convictions two years ago during his wife’s troubled third pregnancy, when, for the first time, he sought parental leave. He was told Time Warner’s standard 10 weeks of paid time off applied to women, same-sex parents and adoptive parents of either sex, but not to biological fathers. So he challenged the policy before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming discrimination. And, in the face of heavy media coverage, the communications giant buckled. Last fall, it amended its policy to provide fathers with six paid weeks off, and the same for any adoptive parent working for the company.
It was a partial win; Levs wanted 10 paid weeks off for any new parent. But he was astounded by the breadth and passion of the coalition that galvanized around him. A vast network of fathers’ groups, labour lawyers, bloggers and social advocates rallied to his cause, forcing a national conversation about whether caregiving fathers were getting a fair shake. They were heard. In his 2014 State of the Union address, as press coverage of Levs’s dispute with Time Warner hit its height, President Barack Obama decried “workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode,” urging companies to better accommodate the family needs of fathers, as well as mothers. By then, many U.S. advocates were pointing to Canada, where leave coverage through Employment Insurance extends to any parent who is the primary caregiver. Undeniably, our system is more generous: Fathers here can access as many as 35 weeks of leave without losing their jobs, receiving 55 per cent of their normal weekly earnings up to a maximum of $524. (Our full year of benefits for mothers, in particular, seldom fails to astound American parents, who are guaranteed 12 weeks unpaid leave from their jobs, and only if they work for a large employer.)
But Levs wonders why more Canadian men aren’t seizing their opportunity. Never mind paid leave under EI; only one in four men outside Quebec takes any leave in the first three years of his kids’ lives, statistics suggest, and those who do average less than 2½ weeks away from work. Is this really about financial benefits, or are more profound cultural forces coming into play?
Money remains part of the explanation, insists Andrea Doucet, a Brock University sociologist and Canada Research Chair in gender, work and care. Men remain the higher-paid spouse in most Canadian families, she notes, and the 45 per cent salary hit when a father takes paternity leave under EI is simply too crippling. Moreover, top-up pay remains relatively rare. Only half of public sector workers and one in five in the private sector get it, while the generosity of employers varies widely. One, B.C.’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, provides new fathers a top-up of 75 per cent of full pay for up to 52 weeks, but some offer as little as two weeks’ worth and many provide none. As a result, most men stick to a tried-and-true practice of bunching up vacation time to spend with their newborns, then heading back to work before their paycheque takes a hit.
Doucet points to Quebec’s unique system as proof of the power of even partial top-up. The province is the only one offering benefits exclusively to new fathers, bringing their income to 70 per cent of normal earnings for up to five weeks. Since the program launched in 2006, Quebec has gone from about 21 per cent uptake of paternity leave to 80 per cent, Doucet notes, adding: “I think fathers in Quebec look at it and think, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ ”
Elsewhere in Canada, the opposite mindset prevails. David Janz was a young veterinary professor in 2004, when he filed a grievance over top-up pay against the University of Saskatchewan. The practice was by no means novel, but the university’s lawyer adopted a tone of incredulity during an arbitration hearing, asking: “Why would you want to take 21 weeks off for paternity leave?” Janz tried to remain unfazed, answering, “Uh, to spend quality time with my newborn daughter?”
Janz had hoped to share child-care duties during that year, so his wife, also an academic, could prepare for a new lecturing position she’d just won. But, like Levs, he’d learned that his employer’s generous 95 per cent top-up benefits were aimed at mothers nursing newborns, or at adoptive parents, and not at biological fathers. He could only receive top-up within eight weeks of his child’s birth, which was poor timing for his wife and him. The arbitrator agreed the provision was discriminatory, yet lacked the authority to override it. But Janz had made his point. In the next round of collective bargaining, the university agreed to revise the provision to ensure biological fathers were no longer excluded.
Still, the words of that lawyer have stuck with Janz. For his wife to lean into her career, he explains, he had to lean out. And, like many men who embrace their role as caregivers, he’s convinced everyone stands to benefit. Children get optimal care, according to experts, while employers retain valuable female workers and women have voices at the highest levels of corporate life. Kids develop special bonds with their dads, meanwhile, which, in turn, stabilizes domestic relationships. The evidence isn’t just anecdotal: In a recent U.S. study, men who took paternal leave overwhelmingly reported enjoying the experience, while both fathers and mothers surveyed reported that it made them feel closer to their spouses.
The plain truth, however, is that traditional ideas still reign where it counts: in the hive mind of the working population. Many Canadian men and women—be they managers, business owners or workaday employees—still regard infant care as primarily a mother’s job. And they defend the idea by invoking evolutionary biology, insisting this is a “natural” order of things. Pop culture, always good at reflecting our underlying prejudices, backs them up: Fathers’ groups in the U.S. got so sick of Hollywood’s “doofus dad” stereotype, for example, that, in 2012 they mounted a public campaign against it, forcing Huggies diapers to yank a TV ad series showing dads, left alone with their babies, pulling faces at the task of changing diapers, and leaving their infants unchanged through double-overtime of a basketball game.
Even Quebec’s experience points to some bred-in-the-bone misgivings; its success might lie in its limited duration. Enjoying five blissful weeks away from work is one thing, after all; caring for the child for the better part of a year—or beyond—is still something few men are willing to do, and few around them suggest they should. Managers, legislators and even some mothers figure a man will want to be back at work within a month or so, says Doucet. “Mothers feel guilty if they don’t take enough parental leave,” she says, “and fathers feel guilty if they take too much.”
Levs insists this mentality can change through a multi-front battle against laws, workplace policies and societal attitudes. “We have to rise up against these things,” he says, “because it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you give in to it, it’s going to stay in place.” But Western University’s Higgins isn’t so sure. He’s spent two decades studying how working Canadians balance career and family, and has watched as the pressure to work extra hours and compete in the global marketplace have shot up. Men contributing at home have colleagues who put in 10 or 15 hours a week more, he says, because they don’t have children, or their wives are the primary caregivers. “It’s stressful,” he says, “and there are no policy tools to fix it. People are fools to think we can legislate our way out of this problem. Some guys are going to want to spend time with their kids and family, but, unless they’re brilliant, they’re going to have to give up the promotions and the big jobs.”
The man who “wants it all,” then, is faced with a choice. He can pile it all—conference calls, bottle-feeding, business meetings amid Goldfish cracker crumbs—into one frenzied life, as Ricky Shetty did. Or he can check out of work to dedicate himself to child-rearing, and damn the consequences. For Ben, a 37-year-old Torontonian whose baby daughter was born in April, it was an easy call. He’s claimed his full 35-week leave from his job as a hotel food and beverage manager, and doesn’t know if he’ll return. (Maclean’s has changed his name to protect him from fallout, should he choose to go back.) “They have to give me my job back, but they could eliminate the position and pay me out,” he shrugs. “There’s already some stuff going on there. They’ve got an assistant manager doing my duties. There’s a catering and conference services director who likes to get his nose into the food and beverage business.”
One colleague tried to discourage Ben from taking leave, saying his career would almost certainly suffer. But he doesn’t care. In addition to the paternal bliss he’s enjoying with his infant daughter, he’s up to his ears in work. “My wife’s breastfeeding,” he says, “so she really has no time to cook, do dishes, clean the house. So I’m on the go. I’m constantly making her food. Someone’s gotta warm it up, someone’s gotta plate it, and someone’s gotta do the dishes after. That’s me.”
Levs could hardly find a better foot soldier for his legion of “all-in” men. And Ben laughs off those who regard his new life as sub-masculine. (That he’s six foot seven and more than 300 lb. probably lends a degree of confidence.) But he’s alive to the hazards on the path he’s chosen: He’s ready to look for work at a different hotel, and he’s qualified himself as a realtor in case his old job doesn’t work out. Whatever the future holds, he refuses to miss those precious first years of his daughter’s life. “This is not a time that’s about making money and getting ahead,” he says. “This about spending time with the child, and it’s time that you’ll never get back. Honestly, right now, I can’t imagine going to back to work.”
This article was originally published in Maclean’s.